NHL return-to-play tournament: The 10 people we're rooting for in the restart

Let's begin by stating the obvious: What we're rooting for the most when the NHL restarts its season a week from Saturday in Toronto and Edmontonis health and safety. That the bubbles are secure, and the protocols are followed. That the physical and mental health of everyone involved in this reboot is regarded. That the COVID-19 risk is present but not prevalent.

That's what we're rooting for the most.


But we're also hoping that these individuals find success inside the bubbles. For some, that means an elusive Stanley Cup. For others, it's a shot at redemption. Many stories are going to emerge from this unprecedented postseason. Any of these would make for a good one. Here are 10 people we're rooting for in the NHL restart.





Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning


Five players in the NHL have played at least 600 games and carried a points-per-game average of more than 1.00 in the past decade. Four of them have won the Stanley Cup: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin. The other is named Steven Stamkos. I've covered many of his playoff disappointments, whether in championship series or in four shocking nights against the Columbus Blue Jackets. I've been in scrums in which he's had to explain his team's defeats and his own frustrations, such as putting up one assist in six Stanley Cup Final games against Chicago in 2015.

This Lightning team is one of the most well-constructed that we've seen in recent memory. Although that doesn't always translate to a championship, I'd love to see Stamkos collect the chalice from Gary Bettman after a self-satisfactory, productive and, above all else, healthy run to the title for Tampa Bay.



Ilya Kovalchuk, Washington Capitals


Going from washed up in Los Angeles to resurrected in Montreal to skating with the new Russian Five in Washington makes for the kind of head-spinning season that should, given this chaotic timeline, end with Kovalchuk hoisting his first Stanley Cup. It would be worth it if only for the inevitable question asking him to compare that moment to hoisting the KHL Gagarin Cup, aka the only trophy in sports named after a cosmonaut.



Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets


For all the grief I get for my Hart Trophy hang-ups, the way voters treat goaltenders for the award is truly bizarre. There's the Cy Young-esque "they have their own award" argument. There's the "well, a goalie could be MVP every year!" argument, which probably carried more weight when guys such asMartin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff were starting close to 80 games per season. Recently, a goalie has won the Hart Trophy only when he was the sole reason a bad team was good (Dominik Hasek) or he played for Montreal (Jose Theodore).

Hellebuyck fulfills the first criteria if not the second, posting an incredible 19.86 expected goals saved above average(per Evolving Hockey) in leading a Jets team that turned over four of its six defensemen last offseason. It's a crime that Hellebuyck isn't a Hart finalist; winning a playoff round or two would be a decent consolation prize.



Patrick Marleau, Pittsburgh Penguins


Everyone's favorite cool uncle didn't get a chance to win the Stanley Cup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which would've required the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup. Now Marleau is in Pittsburgh, where they win Stanley Cups. The "old guy wins first Cup" trope is one of the NHL's most played out, but Sidney Crosby passing the chalice to a 40-year-old Patrick Marleau, who's 45 regular-season games from breaking Gordie Howe's NHL games played record? Honestly, that might give us that old "RAYMOND BOURQUE" misty-eyed reaction.



Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues


The Blues nearly finished first in the NHL, with Tarasenko limited to 10 games because of a shoulder injury. That is like when you can't hang out with your group of friends, and then you're like, "Hey, did you have a good time?" and it turns out they had the best time, and then you're like, "I bet it would have been even better if I had been there," and they all stare at their shoes and say, "Oh, totally ..."

My hope is that Tarasenko scores 15 goals and leads the Blues to another Stanley Cup because who doesn't want to feel necessary to their friends?



Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights


One can't help but root for Marc-Andre Fleury. If the Hockey Hall of Fame made its selections based on sheer charisma and enthusiasm, he'd be first-ballot. But this has been a difficult season for him. Fleury lost his father in November and was emotionally devastated by it. He struggled for the Knights, skating to a .905 save percentage and a negative goals saved above average (minus-14.03). Vegas made a transparent move for an insurance policy in Robin Lehner at the deadline.

The playoffs can be a redemptive time, and Fleury has always shown an ability to earn redemption when opportunities come his way. Here's hoping it happens again.



Phase 4 Secure Zone Facility Hygiene Officer


Later this week, we might learn some of the identities of the "hygiene officials" for the league and its teams inside the bubbles. That includes two "Phase 4 Secure Zone Facility Hygiene Officers" who will be appointed by the NHL and tasked with inspecting all the facilities in the bubbles to ensure that they are compliant with league protocols.

Don't worry: This isn't going to be some former player with a clipboard running around the Edmonton Marriott. The NHL Hygiene Officer "must be a nurse, occupational health and safety professional or infection prevention and control professional." Whoever you are, godspeed and happy hygiene.




Rick Bowness, Dallas Stars


First, for the hockey reason: Bowness was thrust into a job he didn't necessarily want when Jim Montgomery was fired by the Dallas Stars in December, but the long-time assistant coach -- who hadn't been a head coach since 2004 -- took on the challenge and thrived.

Second, for the other reason: Bowness is the oldest head coach in the tournament, at 65 years old, and it isn't exactly a state secret that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people his age. "It's a different world out there. I'm going to have to adjust to it, there is no question," he told the Associated Press. "I just want to make sure I'm cautious, which we've been since this virus started, and I will continue to do that. My health -- hey, I'm a grandfather now. My first grandkid, I intend on playing some golf with that kid down the road. I intend on being here a lot longer. So, yeah, am I going to be careful? Absolutely." So say we all.



Steve Mayer, NHL chief content officer


For those who don't know, Mayer is the creative force behind the bells and whistles for events ranging from the NHL All-Star Game to the outdoor games. For the bubbles, he has been tasked with ... well, everything from hotels to security to entertainment to what the team lounges look like. That's not to mention the aesthetics of the arenas and figuring out what this is all going to look like on television. Mayer is a very creative guy. This is a very large canvas. We're excited to see how it turns out.



Claude Giroux (and his Philadelphia Flyers friends)


Maybe it's the Oskar Lindblom news, as he's going to travel with the Flyers to the Toronto hub. Maybe it's Carter Hart, the outstanding, young goalie who could do what outstanding goalies do sometimes and play lights-out in the playoffs. Maybe it's Alain Vigneault, who has a funny way of getting a lot out of his team in his first season with a club. Maybe it's Giroux, one of the best players of his generation whose legacy would certainly be enhanced by a Stanley Cup. Maybe it's the 1975 thing. Maybe it's Gritty. I don't know, but there's something about this Flyers team that I like. "Pick to win the Stanley Cup" like? Stay tuned ...

Jersey fouls


From reader Adam:

Nickname Jerseys are a controversial subsection of Jersey Fouls. Some scholars believe that if the nickname is the "officially accepted" moniker -- your "Sid The Kid" or "Flower," for example -- then it should be allowed to grace a nameplate. Others believe that this is dumb because only a player's actual name should be on a player's jersey, per NHL rules.

St. Louis Blues defenseman Carl Gunnarsson was nicknamed "Boom Boom," both for the weaponized inference of his last name and because, allegedly, his shots on the ice were so nonthreatening that he earned the nickname ironically. That brings us to the other part of this Jersey Foul: coattailing on an accepted nickname. Hockey had a "Boom Boom." His name was Bernie Geoffrion, and he's in the Hall of Fame. Can't have two. There was a "Rocket" Richard, so Pavel Bure was "The Russian Rocket," and so on. From that aspect, a total foul.

Three things about NHL muzzles


1. I support the NHL players who want their positive COVID-19 tests kept anonymous and private, which is the least we can offer them as they leave their families for a few months to go in a hotel bubble during a global pandemic so we can watch hockey at noon on a Tuesday. We've been trending toward medical privacy for the past few years anyway, and now that we're dealing with a communicable disease, it's a natural escalation of privacy.

"The guys don't want their medical information made public. I know it's been different over the course of history, but things have shifted over the last few years with 'upper-body injury' and 'lower-body injury.' The players have the same right to privacy as everyone else does," the NHLPA's Mathieu Schneider told TSN 1040 last week.

Absolutely. But the unintended consequence of an "unfit to play" designation is that the minds of fans and media will default to "positive COVID-19 diagnosis," and that will spark endless (and often baseless) speculation about the player's well-being and behavior.

Again, no one is saying the players need to reverse course and allow what they believe is private medical information to be disclosed. But you'd think that they would've at least considered the fallout from this: social media accounts scoured by amateur epidemiologists, teammates and their "inner circle" pestered with questions by curious onlookers, speculation that turns a sprained ankle into a potential two-week quarantine.

Did the players consider this?

"Not really, in all honesty" was Schneider's answer.

2. The NHL's all-encompassing policy on injury disclosure -- treating everything as "unfit to play" and taking away teams' ability to specify injuries -- seriously needs a good tweaking. Take, for instance, when Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers left a team scrimmage during the first period and didn't return. Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere said, "I noticed that he left the ice. That's all. That's what the league wants us to say, and that's all I know."

Look, this is dumb. Hart was "fit to play." Obviously, something happened during the scrimmage that forced him to leave it. Teams should be not be bound by the COVID-19 omert if a player gets injured during competition. Let's not overcomplicate this.

3. In other muzzling news, the NHL and its broadcast partners are reportedly planning to build a five-second delay into broadcasts to catch any adult languagebellowed inside an empty arena. Although the players have to sign off on this, it's the NHL's initiative.

I was a longtime advocate for an "adult feed" of NHL games. Throw it on pay cable. Have the announcers toss around salty language, too. (To carbon date this idea, I thought Denis Leary would have been a perfect off-color commentator.) But I've come to realize that players and coaches can't be trusted to refrain from blurting out something completely ignorant during the heat of battle. Given the acoustics of empty-arena games, I get the delay. I just hope we're all ready for five minutes of muted sound after a team wins the Cup.

Listen to ESPN On Ice


As Wednesday was a busy news day, we're delaying the podcast until later in the week. We will have interviews with the New York Rangers' Ryan Strome and Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Pronger. Meanwhile, you can listen to last week's episode here.

Winners and losers of the week, NHL awards edition


Winner: Legacy nominees

Victor Hedman and Patrice Bergeron are both worthy finalists for the Norris and Selke trophies, respectively. But these two awards have always been default-setting when it comes to finalists. Hedman has been nominated in four straight seasons. Bergeron, famously, has been nominated in nine straight seasons for the Selke. They used to say Ozzie Smith could win a Gold Glove just by stepping on the field for Opening Day. There's no question that reputation puts certain nominees over the top, assuming they're already in the conversation.


Losers: Defensive specialists

Jaccob Slavin of the Carolina Hurricanes and Anthony Cirelli of the Tampa Bay Lightning were on the outside looking in for the Norris and Selke, respectively. Slavin set a career high with 0.53 points per game, but that wasn't "all-around" enough for voters to put the best defensive defenseman in the NHL into the Norris top three. That's more grist for the "Selke, but for defensemen" award many have clamored for over the years (your "Rod Langway Award," if you will).

Cirelli, meanwhile, is in the larva stage of his Selke contention, in which he's too young and doesn't score enough despite being arguably the best defensive forward in the NHL this season. Sean Couturier, who's probably going to win this season, had to wait until he was 25 and scored 76 points to get his first nomination. It's how this stuff works, I guess.

Winner: Artemi Panarin

He signed with the New York Rangers last summer with the understanding that they were in a rebuild. All he did this season was elevate average teammates, dominate at 5-on-5, post his best career points-per-game average (1.38) and, through happenstance, make the postseason. Now a Hart Trophy nomination and a cap on escrow? Everything's coming up Bread Man.

Loser: Whining

What a coincidence that the good people of Edmonton had no problem with the media's Hart Trophy voting when we were giving out MVP awards to Wayne Gretzky like they were samples at a Costco, but then suddenly we're unqualified when Connor McDavid doesn't win in a couple of seasons in which the Oilers were irrelevant. Also, here's a reminder that "most valuable" does not, has not and will not simply mean "most outstanding." That's a different award.

Winner: Presidents' Trophy coaches

Only two coaches in the past 20 years have won the Jack Adams for seasons in which their teams won the Presidents' Trophy for the league's best record. But this has always been an award in which coaches who oversee incredible rosters to the top of the league never get the credit given to coaches who "overcome" challenges to finish on the fringe of the playoffs.

To wit: John Tortorella might win his third Jack Adams this year, which would match the total combined wins of Scotty Bowman (2) and Al Arbour (1). It was good to see Bruce Cassidy get a nomination for coaching the first-place Bruins to the Presidents' Trophy on the heels of Jon Cooper getting a nod last year. Maybe that narrative is shifting for the NHL Broadcasters' Association.

Loser: Mike Sullivan

It was an especially stout season for the Jack Adams. I'm not sure which coach out of Tortorella, Cassidy and Alain Vigneault you'd remove for Sullivan, but it seems like he should have been in there. The Penguins were gutted by injuries all season. Sullivan moved pieces around the lineup to get results, and Pittsburgh had a tighter defensive game to compensate. It was a really great season from Sullivan.

Puck headlines



  • The best thing you'll read this week is this look at hockey's "Black quarterback problem," i.e., why there aren't more Black centers in the NHL. Great data and insightful anecdotal reporting. "A player of color may deem these collective obstacles too great to overcome and decide to play a different sport. Without immediate remediation at all levels of hockey, it would be unsurprising to see a missing generation of talented future hockey players opting out of the sport altogether."

  • Catching up with retired NHLer Matt Cullen

  • Is the NHL season restart going to be hockey's version of March Madness? Patrick Kane believes so.

  • An in-depth look at the growth of women's hockey across the board internationally. "It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the growth in registered female players has plateaued in Canada (1.72% growth) and Finland (-7.37% growth). Canada and Finland are first and second, respectively, in registered female players per capita. However, the big story here is the explosion of registered female players in Russia, China, and the Ukraine."

  • The Oskar Lindblom news this week is giving us a great many feels, and the capper was a contract extension with the Flyers.

  • The NHL plans tonot allow Toronto or Edmonton to gain home-ice advantage, despite their playing on home ice. "We know the rink, but we're going to be abiding by such strict protocols in entry and exit, and we're not getting any preferred treatment in terms of hotel or facilities," general manager Kyle Dubas said recently. "So I think that the league's done a pretty good job of keeping that very fair."


Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)


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